Cover: Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents, from Harvard University PressCover: Burning to Read in PAPERBACK

Burning to Read

English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents

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Product Details


$30.00 • £24.95 • €27.00

ISBN 9780674046122

Publication Date: 05/01/2010


368 pages

3 halftones

Belknap Press


James Simpson has dug up a large, complicated truffle, which he examines in precise, revealing detail. In Burning to Read, this erudite and original student of later medieval and Renaissance literature focuses on a single, well-defined episode: the role of books, and more particularly the reading of the Bible, in the English Reformation… His subtle, intense, beautifully written essay helps the reader to understand, historically and existentially, why seemingly reasonable people end up burning books and executing readers. Burning to Read is a book that matters, not only for specialists in the Renaissance and Reformation, but also for the general reader. All of us, after all, now inhabit a world that uses some of Sir Basil Blackwell’s beloved, beneficent books as weapons, and punishes others as if they were rebels and heretics.—Anthony Grafton, The Times Literary Supplement

The English Reformation is commonly held to have provided the intellectual basis for modern liberalism. James Simpson’s fascinating revisionist account turns that traditional picture on its head. Here, the Lutherans appear as the forerunners of a dangerous fundamentalism, and the traditionalists display far more intellectual sophistication than is usually supposed.London Review of Books

James Simpson’s unremittingly clever new book suggests we re-examine the early 16th century in order to make sense of contemporary culture. His aim, however, is to disabuse us of the assumption that modern liberalism can lay claim to unproblematic origins in the Protestant Reformation.—Marcus Nevitt, The Daily Telegraph

A polemic of incandescent force.—Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

What makes this study distinctive is its alertness to connections between past and present, and its sympathetic re-evaluation of church traditions as a force that moderates the divisive effects of uncontrolled scriptural interpretation, drawing on such classic studies as George Tavard’s Holy Writ or Holy Church? …One hopes its message will be heard well beyond Reformation studies.—Alison Shell, Church Times

Simpson explores a familiar subject—the early-16th-century debate over vernacular scripture—from a surprising angle.—E.D. Hill, Choice

Drawing deeply on the history of biblical translation and of English literature from Tyndale through Thomas More to Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Simpson’s story often challenges conventional readings of the history of biblical interpretation.Publishers Weekly

How do we read religious books, what meanings do we take from them, and how did we come by these meanings? The history of reading scriptural texts has a renewed public importance. No period is more in need of fresh appraisal and insight than the Reformation. The way people read then informs how we read now. James Simpson’s book could not be more timely: passionate, controversial, uncompromisingly frank, it partakes of the same energies as the sixteenth-century debates at the same time as it illuminates them. It is a book that demands to be read, and ruminated upon, as religious belief once again rages around us.—Brian Cummings, Professor of English, University of Sussex

Burning to Read is a landmark in the study of fundamentalism. In James Simpson’s radical reassessment, the Protestant Reformation appears not as a parent of the Enlightenment, but rather as a progenitor of the extreme and intolerant literalism that has seized every major world religion today. Written with passion as well as scholarly authority, this is a compellingly readable and utterly persuasive study of a critical moment in world history.—Amitav Ghosh

Awards & Accolades

  • Finalist, 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards, Religion Category
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